When I was young the majority of the country churches had cemeteries and a special Sunday set aside to decorate the graves and have a homecoming for families and friends who had loved ones buried …
When I was young the majority of the country churches had cemeteries and a special Sunday set aside to decorate the graves and have a homecoming for families and friends who had loved ones buried there. These were always well attended and vendors jumped at the opportunities to set up where there would be a lot of people congregated. Many venders knew, or had recorded, when and where each decoration would draw the largest number, and they would go on Saturday and set up to serve those who came to decorate the graves and attend the Sunday services and festivities. Some would set up on Fridays in order to be able to get the positions which would draw more people. These were always exciting times for me because we would normally have more prosperous relatives who would come and give us money so that we could go shopping among the vendors. Common items consisted of crushed, flavored, ice in cups, ice cream packaged in small lidded cups (a small flat wooden spoon was provided), popsicles, and ice cream bars which was kept cold by a chest type freezer that was kept on the truck and plugged in until it was time to go sell the goods. Other peddlers peddled all types of trinkets. It was not uncommon to have Bible salesmen there peddling their King James Version of the Bible. The Dixon Bible was one of the most expensive, yet one of the best sellers. It was a favorite among many of the preachers and came highly recommended, much to the delight of their salesmen.
Cemeteries would be cleaned and decorated for the homecoming. Most graves at that time had dirt raked up to a ridge over the casket, as many were buried in a pine box which would decay and allow the grave to sink. The extra dirt on top would minimize a sunken grave. With the introduction of vaults, this excess soil was no longer needed. The graves would undergo a fresh raking, and fresh cut flowers would be placed over the top. Much pride was taken in growing the best flowers, and making the nicest arrangements that would adorn the graves of loved ones. After the flowers died, they would be removed from the grave and properly disposed of. Young children were taught to respect graves, and they should never be walked on or desecrated in any way. At the death of an individual, there would always be volunteers to help dig the grave and cover the casket after burial. It was a common practice for bodies to be taken back to the home where an around the clock vigil would be held with one always standing over the body to wave away flies and other insects. There was usually a lot of loud weeping from close family members as they viewed the body. Some were subjected to collapsing and had to be led away. A procession to the church and cemetery followed, with headlights on in the cars in the procession, and respect was paid to the deceased by the customary stopping of traffic until the procession had passed, even though the identity of the deceased was not known by those who stopped. The burial was normally followed by a return to the house where the community had brought prepared food for the deceased family and friends.
While still very young, I recall attending a funeral of a great uncle, Cephus Key, who died after a long fight with cancer. The funeral was held at the Zion Church of Christ near Parrish and it was a sobering experience for me. I still remember that one of the songs that were selected to be sang during the funeral was The Last Mile of the Way, which I thought was very appropriate. Zion has had their decoration and homecoming on the first Sunday in May for about 150 years and that is where many of my relatives, including maternal grandparents, infant sister, parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, and friends are buried. The first Sunday in May has always been a special day with a lot of memories associated with it. No longer do the vendors set up on that day at Zion, no extra chairs are brought out for an expected overflow crowd, vaults have replaced the wooden boxes (even though both of my parents requested, and were buried in one) and the graves have all been flattened, but the cemetery there, as in countless other such cemeteries, remain a sacred place.
Families would choose a plot and claim it for their own. A walk through the cemetery at Zion will reveal the many different ways burial places were marked to distinguish the separate plots. Some are fenced, some covered with concrete, some rimed with brick or blocks, while others are filled, and the tombstones bears the names of those who chose the plot decades ago. The cemetery at Zion has been receiving dead for over 150 years. During the decoration on the first Sunday in May, many graves are decorated with flowers while others go unattended, neglected and forgotten, with the passage of time. Some are marked with only a simple stone and the body that was placed there is unknown.